Rhein on Energy and Climate

Quo vadis Europe?

Europe is presently engaged in an intensive debate related to the crisis of sovereign debt, its governance and the links between citizens and EU institutions.

I offer my modest contribution to this debate.

The EU will have solved most of its sovereign debt problems by 2020.

This follows logically from the progressive, reduction of member states` budget deficits.

By the same token the EU will reinforce its role in macro-economic governance.

By 2020, major macro-economic policy issues will be debated and resolved at EU level, on the basis of Commission proposals and EP +Council decisions.

Globalisation will force Europe to operate this way, whether member States like it or not.

Member States will no longer be able to decide the volume of their public expenditures and receipts in full independence.

They will have to submit to a strict scrutiny by the EU Commission and the ECOFIN Council. This is the price to be paid for EU fiscal and economic sustainability.

The same goes for key macro-economic variables that determine the competitiveness of member States.

These are sensitive transfers of sovereignty that should have happened in 1997 when the monetary union was decided. By 2012 member States have finally accepted central overview and formulation of basic economic and fiscal policies at EU level.

But the more powers the EU Commission and ECOFIN will obtain in budget/economic policy overview and formulation the more national parliaments will see their powers being curtailed. More EP control over the Commission and involvement in defining policy guidelines will therefore become indispensable.

That should happen without changing the Treaty.

But in the long run, the Commission will need even more democratic legitimacy by having the Commission President elected by the EP. In this way the Commission will become independent from member States. Its composition will reflect that of the EP. Its numbers need no longer be identical to those of member States. Its efficiency will increase, as it will no longer be bound by the principle of collegiality.

The future Treaty should also change the designations: The Commission should become “EU government”, its president “EU prime minister” and Commissioners “EU ministers”.

This would facilitate citizens` understanding of the functioning of EU governance; and European parliamentary elections will matter much more than today and attract more political talent to the European scene as the crowning of national careers.

These modifications will, of course, require Treaty change as part of a major institutional reform to be envisaged around 2020, which should review the entire institutional set-up.

The European Council constitutes a sui generis institution that has no parallel on earth.

It resembles a supreme executive branch of government. Called upon to give high-level political guidance for Europe it overlooks all institutions, including member States. That is possible because of the democratic legitimacy it derives from the heads of government being elected democratically in their respective member countries.

Its President assumes the role of an EU President, while the Commission president functions as the EU prime minister, in charge of running the Executive.

Calls for combining the two functions should be dismissed. There is no reason to change the institutional balance between Commission and European Council. A merger would overcharge a single President and endow him with excessive powers.

But in order to confer more democratic legitimacy on the president, the EP should give its assent to his/her designation.

The Legislative functions as a bi-cameral system, largely copied from the German precedent.

The Council of ministers represents member States` governments, enjoying an indirect democratic legitimacy. With legislative acts being adopted by 55 per cent of member States representing 65 per cent of the population voting in favour, this system takes into account the composition of the EU with a majority of small States, rendering it impossible for a majority of small States to out-vote the few big ones.

It does not call for urgent reforms.

The EP functions increasingly well.

There is no reason to endow it with a formal right of initiative. It can call upon the Commission to come forth with proposals. That should suffice in a European-type of “executive democracy”, where the bulk of legislative proposals originates in the Executive.

It suffers from three weaknesses, which should be addressed without a Treaty reform:

  • The absence of a single electoral code

This will hopefully be addressed in time for next elections in 2014; the EP is in the process of preparing appropriate texts for Council approval.

  • The weakness of its pan-EU political party groupings

It is up to EP member parties to tackle this flaw by forming EU-wide party federations, which will be of crucial importance for a viable European Political Union.

  • The over-representation of small member countries

This flaw has been largely addressed by the degressive proportionality introduced through the Lisbon Treaty. Formally it constitutes an infringement on the basic “one man one vote”principle. But this does not undermine the EP`s democratic legitimacy, no more than that of the US Senate composed of two senators per State whatever the size of its population.

The EU does not need more powers for acquitting its present functions.

It possesses the power to initiate legislation in essentially all policy areas, outside culture , health and education. After the recent transfers of competences for macro-economic, monetary and financial matters it is also better equipped to harness economic crisis situations.

Much of national legislation already originates at EU level; the EU should therefore use its powers sparingly and abstain from demonstrating excessive zeal. The principle of subsidiarity should be enshrined in gold in every Brussels office!

The decision-making process, however time-consuming and cumbersome, has become at least as transparent as in member states.

Long-term road maps, green and white papers and open hearings/consultations show every interested citizen the direction and basic objectives being pursued.

It is the length of the process, its multi-linguistic nature and the need to reconcile conflicting member States` interest groups rather than that of parties that distinguish the EU decision making process from that in member States.

This being said, the EU political process suffers from structural handicaps that are common to all democratic governments acting in the interest of hundreds of millions of people like USA, India or Brazil.

It is far away from the rank and file citizen. Its decisions cannot square the individual interests of 500 million citizens; they need to be abstract and are therefore not easy to communicate. This weakness allows member states and interest groups to criticise EU legislation, despite having been involved in its elaboration.

There is no recipe against this handicap except permanent, crystal – clear information. The EU has substantially improved its information policy. But considering the complexity and width of its action it will never be possible to achieve perfect communication, especially if national governments lend only half-hearted support.

External policy remains a raw point of EU policy making.

Thanks to an effectively managed common trade policy, the EU is well equipped for defending its commercial interests. But foreign and security policy remain sensitive areas.

Though individual member states have no longer much clout on the international scene, their diplomatic and military machineries cling to competences that have become increasingly meaningless. For understandable reasons, foreign ministers do not want to see their role reduced to that of elaborating and approving common positions in the Foreign Affairs Council. They like to travel, attend international conferences and enjoy the visibility and prestige that traditionally went along with their functions.

Since the Lisbon Treaty, the EU disposes of a sort “foreign minister” in charge of initiating common policies and chairing the monthly meetings of foreign ministers. Unfortunately the present incumbent had never before been involved in foreign policy. which may explain her timidity in making policy proposals. She also had to put in place a brand-new administrative machinery. Last not least, foreign and security decisions require unanimity, which is huge handicap for decision making.

Despite these serious shortcomings it should be possible to make substantial progress towards a common external policy, as outlined in the Lisbon Treaty. Europe simply has no alternative to acting jointly if it wants to avoid being completely side-lined by increasingly powerful players. To this end, foreign ministers must learn think in terms of European interests. As a first practical step, they should de facto renounce their veto power.

The importance of national foreign ministries will rapidly shrink.

This is an irreversible trend. Small member States have already adapted to the new situation. Their role in global affairs has already been minimised. Bigger member States will follow. All of them will be able to reduce or close embassies in countries where EU delegations offer equivalent services, from general diplomatic/political information to trade assistance and consular functions.

The creation of the European External Action Service and EU Delegations throughout the world will give a boost to the common foreign and security policy.

The mingling of national diplomats with EU officials in a joint machinery will create productive synergies and a European foreign policy mentality.

In the long-term the Service should become a normal department of the EU Executive. But its immediate priority should be on European presence and influence across the world.

At the overdue reform of the UN Institutions France and UK will also have little choice but to abandon their permanent UNSEC Seats into a single one for the EU, the alternative being the loss of at least one of them to increasingly powerful countries like India and Brazil.

An EU security and defence policy hardly exists, though Article 42 of the EUT provides for it as integral part of the common foreign policy.

It should progressively lead to a common defence policy. Member states will come under rising fiscal pressure to reduce redundancies and enhance the efficiency of national defence. They will have not much choice but to bundle their operations in areas where neither NATO nor individual member countries are able or willing to meet their security challenges.

The recent decision to extend the anti-pirate mission in the Indian Ocean to air-driven operations against coastal targets is a timid example of what may be ahead in the future.

EU membership is bound to increase further during the next decades until essentially all European countries willing and able to join may have done so.

There is no urgency to complete this historical process. It has taken the USA almost two centuries to complete its Federation. Why should Europe not take one century for achieving its unity! Being the smallest continent in demography and geography Europe has an overriding interest in uniting if it wants to remain a meaningful international actor.

Enlargement should therefore be seen as a strategic component of EU external policy. By the middle of the century the EU might count up to 40 countries with about 600 million people, bordering on the Arctic Ocean in the North, Russia in the East, the Caspian Sea and Iran in the South East and the Mediterranean in the South.

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